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The Human Story Of Bradley Manning

July 31, 2013

Front page, and above the fold in The New York Times.

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I have felt over the years as the Bradley Manning story has played out how he should have had better advice from his parents when it came time to enter the military.  A small-framed man who is gay is not the best mix for the jar neck crowd.  It should not have to be that way, but that is unfortunately how it still is.  The back story to how Manning came to be in a situation where he was confronted with the brutality of war while waging his own internal struggles is a sad one.  As I said when writing about him before, I wish Manning some way to find peace.

That story involved the child of a severed home, a teenager bullied for his conflicted sexuality whose father, a conservative retired soldier, and mother, a Welsh woman who never adjusted to life in Oklahoma, bounced their child back and forth between places where he never fit in.       

Private Manning was a misfit as well in the Army, which he joined in the hope of gaining technical skills and an education, and which eventually sent him to Contingency Operating Station Hammer, a remote post east of Baghdad, where he had access to some of the nation’s deepest military and diplomatic secrets. In early 2010, he covertly downloaded gun-camera videos, battle logs and tens of thousands of State Department cables onto flash drives while lip-syncing the words to Lady Gaga songs.

While larger questions about government secrecy and the role of the news media in the Internet age swirl around the case, the roots of Private Manning’s behavior may spring as much from his troubled youth as from his political views.       

He spent much of his childhood alone, playing video games or huddled in front of a computer when he was living with his mother in Haverfordwest, Wales. He was teased relentlessly there for his foreign ways and began to act out in school.

After several outbursts, his mother sent him back to Oklahoma, where he worked briefly at a computer software store. But several angry clashes with his father — which some friends attributed to his father’s disapproval of his sexual identity — landed him on the streets, living in his car.

Eventually, he made his way into the Army, which seized on his computer skills and trained him as an intelligence analyst. While stationed at Fort Drum, N.Y., friends said in interviews, Private Manning met a student from Brandeis University named Tyler Watkins, and fell in love. Some of Mr. Watkins’s friends were part of a burgeoning hacker community at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.       

That community, friends said, embraced the young Army private: his geeky fascination with computers, his liberal political opinions and his sexual orientation.       

While he seemed to thrive in that world, his military career was tarnished by violent outbursts. While serving on a base east of Baghdad, he was reprimanded twice, including once for assaulting an officer, and he complained in e-mails of being “regularly ignored by his superiors” unless they needed him to fetch more coffee.       

Private Manning rebelled quietly, friends said, wearing a dog tag that said “Humanist” and keeping a toy fairy wand on his desk. Then, surreptitiously, beginning in late 2009 or early 2010, he began downloading thousands of government documents. He considered leaking them to The New York Times, The Washington Post or Politico, but decided to contact WikiLeaks in February 2010, several months into his deployment.

Mr. Manning has reacted stoically to the conditions of his imprisonment, much of it in solitary confinement, although others, including his legal team and Amnesty International, have loudly protested his treatment. In one of his chats with Mr. Lamo, he contemplated a life behind bars, which could be especially difficult for him because of his struggles with his gender identity.       

“I wouldn’t mind going to prison for the rest of my life,” he wrote to Mr. Lamo, “or being executed so much, if it wasn’t for the possibility of having pictures of me plastered all over the world press as a boy.”

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